The sun is just coming up in the backyard, your first, hot cup of coffee steams off into the early morning, and a hummingbird zings near you. Or it’s evening, you watch the sun duck below the Sierras, a slight breeze ripples the nylon of your tent, and behind you a ground squirrel scurries through camp. What do you do? Pull out Charles Finn’s collection of prose, Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters, and read an essay or two. “We are given these days, don’t you know, to do with as we will,” he writes, in “Cougar,” an essay telling of his witnessing the cat, and then his rush outside with a camera as the animal crosses the yard.
What we have in this collection of essays is a slim guide to seeing wilderness in action, a series of pieces of prose, all brief, none more than a page or two, that each embody an animal encounter Finn’s experienced. It’s a litany of time in the wild—though not all encounters happen in the wildwood, per se—and it becomes a catalog of Finn’s own revelations at the joy and awe of having the luck to be in a place when a herd of bison surrounds his car, slowly plodding by him, or to be seated at a river as a fox comes ambling up the shore.
These aren’t all huge, imposing mammalian confrontations with folks like bison, bears, or cougars. The majority of the essays are reflections after witnessing a smaller member of our world. Chickadees, ouzels, a Western toad. A pygmy owl, a swallow, a flicker. Each essay brings us some revelation of the larger world, no matter the size of the creature we get to see through Finn’s eyes.
Finn’s episode with a red-shafted flicker is a near perfect example. It happens indoors, when Finn returns from chopping wood to discover the bird inside his house. It quickly tries to escape, battering itself first into one window, then another. Thinking quickly, our author throws a towel over the bird, then picks it up, keeping it tightly supported, its head uncovered, and he takes the stray outside to let it go. That’s the summary of the action, but Finn’s prose does much more to elevate the piece. “There is a calmness birds bring to people, a steadiness they impart to even the most frenzied of lives,” begins the piece. The whole first paragraph talks about birds generally, the feeling they bring, and with a few examples—the chickadees claws on a finger, the flutter of wings—Finn confesses the way bird encounters have eased “a loneliness I wasn’t aware that I had.”
Thus, we’re linked to Finn, the human experience of loneliness, and what this does is make the encounter as much about him as it is about a view to a vagrant flicker. A quick paragraph sets the scene. There are a few sentences about the flicker, the bird, in general. Then the towel is on the bird, and it’s safely and tightly in Finn’s caring hands. The description of the bird, and an illustration of its actions and response upon capture are then whittled so delicately as to be nothing short of a pleasure to read, a created moment to pause and feel the bird, as if we’re actually the ones seeing it.
A comma of rescue orange was splashed on each cheek. There was the crescent-shaped bib of black under the chin, and below it a spectacular black and white polka dot chest.
As I smoothed this chest with my thumb, the flicker opened his beak but did not make a sound. Then he cranked his head side to side, carving figure eights in the air. When his eye lit on mine, it stayed. The feathers around it were soft gray, a black pupil resting there like a drop of pure oil.
This is gorgeous, perfect prose, writing that does just enough to get us there without being too much, so we see the flicker up close, feel this bird in our hands. Impossible to read without feeling a twinge of envy for Finn.
Of course, Finn’s not ready to let us go yet. “It was a great boon is all I’m going to tell you: to hold that bird and forget my place among things.” Finn enlarges the space around the episode, and the loneliness we all sometimes feel is linked to the sudden recognition of the joy of an accidental closeness to a wild animal. “With the flicker I walked outside into the sunshine. I spent thirty seconds holding that bird. I don’t think I can be blamed for holding on a little too long, a little too tightly. They were wild, delicate seconds, like the ones that make up my childhood.” And we’re released.
These short essays, these pieces of memoir are almost prose poems. They’re filled with brief moments of insight, linking us through Finn to the animal world. They contain beginnings, middles, and ends. There are stories, there are the revelations in this fine writing. It’s a slim little field guide we’re lucky to have.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives, (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.